DTS Magazine
Steve ElkinsSteve Elkins

Jim Rayburn: DTS, Young Life, and His Legacy

Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Dallas Theological Seminary’s founder and first president, dreamed of the day “the seminary would send all its grads to the mission field.” Certainly concerned with producing preachers as well—after all, DTS’s motto at that time was, “Preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2)—Chafer also wanted to produce leaders. He wanted spiritual leaders coming out of DTS.

Legacy of Grace

In 1935, Jim Rayburn (ThM, 1940) served as a Presbyterian area missionary out of Chama, New Mexico, where he stumbled onto a copy of Chafer’s He That Is Spiritual. He had never read anything like it! So he called the seminary and enrolled immediately.

“This wonderful man of God would just jump down our young necks every day about the fact that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ was what Christ had done for man plus nothing else in the world.”

He and his wife, Maxine, moved to Dallas in 1936 to start the four-year seminary program. Chafer’s impact and influence—specifically Chafer’s clear teaching on grace—changed Rayburn’s life.

In The Diaries of Jim Rayburn, Kit Sublett emphasized that Jim thrived under the tutelage of Dr. Chafer. Jim said, “This wonderful man of God would just jump down our young necks every day about the fact that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ was what Christ had done for man plus nothing else in the world. There wasn’t anything you could add to it; there wasn’t anything else you could do about it. It was all completely done and wrapped up and ready to deliver to anybody who would take it.”

Jim and his friends—Addison Sewell (ThM, 1941), George Sheffer (ThM, 1945), and Gordon Whitelock—were so inspired by Dr. Chafer’s teaching of God’s grace that they were determined to take action. “I used to sit in those classrooms and think ‘If I don’t do something about this, I’m going to burst!’” Jim explained.

Legacy of Ministry

At that time, Jim got involved with a ministry, The Miracle Book Club, in Gainesville, Texas, but they only met after school. “We didn’t have a red-corpuscled kid in the group.” Jim would later demure, “They were all at practices.” Burning with his Chafer-inspired attitude that every young person “had a right to get a clear look at Jesus Christ and make an intelligent decision for himself,” Jim walked the streets of downtown Dallas one Sunday afternoon in 1939. 

Observing the many kids the church wasn’t reaching, or was not able to reach, he conceived the idea of taking the gospel to them. Four things enabled him to do this. He had a club meeting that would meet at a neutral site. He provided leaders who would hang out with kids on their turf (contact work)­. He implemented a great camping program, and a means of providing training for the kids to take the message “behind the enemy lines” at school. Those meetings (and the kids) would be called campaigners. These are Young Life’s distinctives—the four “C’s.”

The first Young Life (YL) club—“Club #37” he cleverly called it, knowing no one would come to a “Club #1”!—was down the street from the seminary, in the Scout Cabin, in Orv Mitchell’s backyard not far from White Rock Lake. 

Rayburn created this club as a relational ministry, where leaders “win the right to be heard.”

Rayburn created this club as a relational ministry, where leaders “win the right to be heard”—a phrase coined by Rayburn. He urged for a ministry sourced and bathed in prayer (Chafer’s book, True Evangelism: Winning Souls by Prayer, was a primer in all of the early Young Life training). He prayed for a non-boring ministry based on high adventure—especially the adventure of finding what it means to know and walk with Christ.  “It’s a sin to bore a kid with the gospel,” Rayburn famously said, which became the title of a 1978 book on the history of Young Life.

Young Life’s basic approach in reaching kids is to win a favorable hearing, like the woman at the well (John 4:1–42), and encourage them to check out YL for themselves. Kind of a subtle, respectful, “come see, could this be?” approach.

Rayburn strongly felt that if kids—or anyone—could just get a clear glimpse of what Christ is like—not what people say he’s like, not what we might think he’s like—but what he’s really like—they would be irresistibly attracted to him.

Legacy of Prayer

Chafer’s emphasis on prayer caused his young charges to keep prayer journals. As a student, Jim was no exception, and prayer dominated the YL ministry.  

Rayburn had all the leaders keep ‘prayer lists’ of kids in their Bible.  One time, Bob Mitchell—a member of the original Club #37, and later much-loved president of Young Life—stayed in the car a minute after Jim and his high school buddies had already left to get a hamburger. Mitch rifled through Jim’s little Phillips New Testament and his prayer list fell out. “I can’t tell you what it meant to me as a high schooler to see my name on that list!” Mitch said with tears in his eyes.

Rayburn was notorious for calling in staff from all over the country, on the spur of the moment, for a weekend of prayer. That’s all, just prayer. They’d eat, play a little volleyball, then Jim would holler, “We didn’t come to play, we came to pray!” and they got back to it.

In the 1950s, Mal McSwaim, a college summer-staffer at Frontier Ranch (who’d later become a YL vice president), was given the assignment to pick Jim up at the Colorado Springs airport. “Great!” thought Mal, “All this time, one-on-one with Jim!”  

Mal couldn’t wait. “I have to admit, I was a little disappointed when the first thing Jim did when he got in the car was say, ‘Let’s pray!’ So, Jim starts praying. He prayed for staff all over the country by name, for their needs and needs of the ministry…after fifteen to twenty minutes he stopped, it was my turn. I prayed three minutes or so—thought I’d done pretty good. Then Jim started praying again…then it was my turn. My praying tuckered out in about two minutes. Then Jim prayed some more. It went on like this, back and forth, the whole two and a half hours to camp. At first, I was disappointed; then I realized what an unbelievable experience I’d been given!”

Legacy of Tomorrow's Leaders

Billy Graham felt Jim Rayburn was the best speaker of his day. Howard Hendricks said, “Jim was the best I ever saw at leading people to faith.”  In his beautifully s l o w, resonant, Texas-John Wayne-baritone, he’d say, “J e s u s C h r i s t is the most a t t r a c t i v e Person to ever walk the face of this e a r t h….” Then he’d paint a compelling portrait of the Savior that would have you on the edge of your seat, wanting to know him like Jim knew him.

He’d paint a compelling portrait of the Savior that would have you on the edge of your seat, wanting to know him like Jim knew him.

Jim felt it was one of Jesus’s many double entendres when he said, “And I, if I be lifted up…will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32, KJV). Through deep prayer and study and walking with Christ—like his mentor, Dr. Chafer—Rayburn lifted Christ before people so they could get a “clear glimpse” of the one who saves and redeems.

In 1990, at Young Life’s 50th-anniversary conference in San Diego, Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, was one of the speakers wishing YL a happy birthday. He paid tribute to his friend,  Jim Rayburn. He said it was during a horseback ride together at Frontier Ranch in 1955 that Rayburn gave him the confirmation and encouragement he needed to “get going” with this new ministry to college kids, soon to be known as Campus Crusade for Christ (now CRU). 

Jim Rayburn once said, “Without Dr. Chafer, there’d have been no Young Life.” And according to Bill Bright, without Rayburn, there wouldn’t have been a Campus Crusade! 

Today, Young Life continues to reach out “to adolescents through volunteers, staff, club meetings, and camps by building meaningful relationships with the intent to share Christ with kids.” Young Life maintains the same principles and vision it had when it first started in 1941: “To introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith.” 


All photographs used with permission of the Rayburn family and Young Life Legacy Program, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Copyright Young Life. All rights reserved.​

Steve Elkins
Steve Elkins Steve Elkins (ThM, 1984) served as a longtime Young Life leader in Dallas, Texas, and is the author of several books including his latest, “Keys to Kingdom Greatness: An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount.” Steve serves as pastor of Believers Bible Church in Corsicana, Texas. His mentor was the great scholar and exegete, Zane Hodges, who taught him the intricacies of the free-grace message.
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